Nothing could have been classier: After Kanye West dissed Taylor Swift by interrupting Swift’s acceptance speech to praise Beyoncé’s ”Single Ladies” video, B brought Taylor out during her own acceptance speech to give Swift her moment in the spotlight. If you didn’t already love Beyoncé, this is yet another reason you should. —Tanner Stransky
JANET JACKSON (2009)
Madonna’s opening eulogy covered the sadness of remembering Michael Jackson. Janet Jackson chose to remind us of her late brother’s joyous artistry, flawlessly performing the complex doubles choreography from their 1995 ”Scream” video while footage of Michael danced beside her on screen. A touching moment, and an exhilarating one. —Simon Vozick-Levinson
LADY GAGA (2009)
The Gaga crazy didn’t end with the red-carpet shenanigans. Pop’s reigning performance artist strung together a mash-up of her hits ”Poker Face” and ”Paparazzi” that, at first, seemed inspired by ”Phantom of the Opera.” But then Gaga gave the riff a spin of her own that included a bloody chest, bleeding eyes, and thigh-high boots. Oh yeah, and she was hanging from the ceiling at the end of it, making it unforgettable. And totally creepy. —TS
What could be better than dozens of leotard-clad dancers rocking out with Beyoncé to ”Single Ladies”? Nothing, in our book. This performance sent B into the stratosphere. Plus, she took home Video of the Year for the song, too. —TS
Her trapeze stunts made audiences gasp with nervousness — and relief — when she pulled off those death-defying mid-air twirls with perfect ease. —SVL
JAY-Z and ALICIA KEYS (2009)
New Yorkers, stand up! Can ”Empire State of Mind” be named our new state song? Regardless, the unstoppable duo of Jay-Z and Keys used this hit to close out the night in spectacular fashion. —SVL
BRITNEY SPEARS (2000 and 2001)
With little more than a Rolling Stones song dripping from her lips and a handful of diamonds sprinkled on her body, Britney Spears changed VMA expectations for the new millennium. Jaws dropped as the pop princess shed her girl-next-door image — along with her clothing — on stage at the 2000 show and convinced us once and for all that she was indeed ”not that innocent.” One year later Britney turned the stage into a jungle, beginning her performance of ”I’m a Slave 4 U” inside a cage with a lion and later strutting around in front of the audience with a boa constrictor draped over her shoulders. She has yet to follow up with a memorable (um, in a good way) VMA showing, but there’s always this year…or next…
Merely a tease to what would come with his phallic strumming at the 2007 Super Bowl, Prince’s cheeky performance made parents ”tsk” long before Britney shed her clothes on the VMA stage. While singing ”Gett Off” during the ’91 show, Prince turned around to reveal (gasp!) backless pants, flashing home audiences with the original — and intentional — wardrobe malfunction. Thanks to those full moons, NFL censors might have known to expect something out of His Purple Badness. But their seven-second delay couldn’t contain his raging, silhouetted guitar solo.
When Britney was barely in Mouse-training, Madonna was inventing the provocative VMA performance in MTV’s infancy. The singer, bathed in her wedding whites, accented with a veil, a belt that read ”Boy Toy,” and those signature eyebrows, rolled around on stage while performing ”Like a Virgin” during the first Video Music Awards. Conservative groups were in a tizzy, teenage boys were in love, and Madonna was just paving the way.
OK GO (2006)
They became a viral sensation with their music video for ”Here It Goes Again,” but it wasn’t until OK Go took it to the VMA stage that everyone really got to see what they could do live. With a cluster of treadmills running, the band effortlessly pulled off their synchronized music-video moves better than any boy band that had tiptoed across the stage before them. The members of ‘N Sync looked on enviously (except Justin, perhaps)…as they watched from home.
WHITNEY HOUSTON and MARIAH CAREY (1998)
Instead of really giving the audience what they wanted — a titillating catfight leaving weave tracks and fake fingernails on the floor in their wake — Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston presented an award together in matching Vera Wang gowns to prove that there was no real feud between them. We would have been content with at least a high-decibel sing-off, ladies.
‘N SYNC and MICHAEL JACKSON (2001)
After a brightly colored, somewhat silly, and maybe slightly pitchy performance of ”Pop,” the current princes of the radio-friendly music genre made way for the reigning king. Jackson busted out a series of signature moves while ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake beat-boxed. It seems that no matter what’s going on in his personal life, there will always be a place for Michael Jackson in the music world and on the VMA stage.
MARTHA STEWART and BUSTA RHYMES (1997)
Going together like a fine wine and a thick cut of steak, Martha Stewart and Busta Rhymes, who handed out the Best Dance Video award to the Spice Girls at the 1997 VMAs, were easily the best pairing of presenters…EVER. Couldn’t you totally see these two packing up Rhymes’ souped-up Cadillac with pre-cooked Cornish game hens and potato salad and leaving for the Hamptons for the weekend? Sigh, only in dreams.
TRIBUTES TO THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. and TUPAC SHAKUR (1997 and 1999)
Diddy (then Puff Daddy) put shameless self-promotion aside to honor the memory of friend and fellow rapper Notorious B.I.G. with a performance of ”I’ll Be Missing You” that brought together Sting, 112, and the widowed Faith Evans. Two years later, in a tearjerker for the ages, the mothers of the fallen — and once feuding — rappers Biggie and Tupac Shakur, Afeni Shakur and Voletta Wallace met for the first time as presenters.
DIANA ROSS and LIL’ KIM (1999)
It was no surprise to anyone that Lil’ Kim would show up to an awards show wearing nothing more than a Bedazzled pastie on her left breast, covering up her nipple and not much else. What dropped jaws and sent giggles throughout the nation, though, was when fellow presenter Diana Ross reached over and jiggled Lil’ Kim’s tata. But in that situation, what else do you do?
The VMA stage has been home to many a scantily clad, writhing beauty, but Colombian cutie Shakira was the first to do it all in Spanish. With the VMAs taking a decidedly uninteresting detour off the coasts to Miami (see ”The Bad”), Shakira was 2005’s saving grace, performing a sultry version of ”La Tortura” with Alejandro Sanz. This was also the first year that a Spanish-language video was up for an award.
PEE-WEE HERMAN (1991)
If you Gen-Y’ers out there think that celebrity scandals began with Paris Hilton’s sex tape, sit down and listen to the tale that tarnished kid hit Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Once upon a time, comedian and Playhouse progenitor Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) was arrested for allegedly exposing himself in public — to be fair it was in an adult theater. Late-night-show mockery and public humiliation ensued. And the words of the day? ”Public MTV appearance!” In his first since the arrest, Pee-Wee opened the 1991 VMAs three months later, asking the audience: ”Heard any good jokes lately?”
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (2002)
I just would like to take the time to thank you for going solo. While I can appreciate the importance of your beginnings with ‘N Sync, it wasn’t until you first broke out with ”Like I Love You” at the 2002 VMAs that I really noticed you for the artist, and the man, that you are. ”Just be limber?” Anything for you, J.T.!
The Good (And Bad…for JT)
BRITNEY SPEARS, MADONNA, CHRISTINA AGUILERA (2003)
Sure, sure, it was the backdrop of a million boys’ (and some girls?) dreams, but let’s take a look at the dark side of Britney and Madonna’s sapphic slip of the tongue, shall we? There was the Xtina factor — poor Ms. Aguilera’s screen time was cut short after Madonna locked lips with Ms. Spears, making the moment forever only known as the ”Britney and Madonna kiss.” But it was really who the producers cut to instead of Madge and Xtina that made this performance all the more memorable. The camera caught Justin Timberlake with raised eyebrows at the beginning, but post-kiss, that shot of Britney’s jilted ex looking stunned and hurt was enough for Britney to get in a ”No, you cry me a river!!”
KANYE WEST (2009)
Yes, the ”Single Ladies” video is awesome. But that doesn’t excuse West’s decision to leap on stage when Swift’s ”You Belong With Me” won Best Female Video and yell about how much better he likes Beyoncé’s video. Ruining a 19-year-old’s VMA moment? Very poor form. —Simon Vozick-Levinson
MICHAEL JACKSON and LISA MARIE PRESLEY (1994)
After suffering media speculation that their marriage was nothing more than a bizarre sham to save the King of Pop’s image, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley thought it would prove everyone wrong if they showed up on stage at the ’94 awards and locked lips. Instead, their forced PDA (and Lisa Marie’s visible discomfort) was followed 15 months later by Presley filing for divorce, confirming everyone’s suspicions that it would, in fact, not last.
BRITNEY SPEARS (2007)
Some tuned in to see Britney conquer. Others tuned in to see her fail. But as soon as she turned around with those ratty extensions and that blank look in her eyes, everyone witnessed the beginning of the end of the ”Gimme More” singer’s hopeful comeback. What made it even worse was how comedian Sarah Silverman (inset) handled her hostly powers, taking the stage afterwards to make jokes about Britney’s children…and her vagina. The crowd seemed so disturbed by the fallen pop star’s performance that the cheap shots received few polite laughs from the uncomfortable crowd.
FIONA APPLE (1997)
When Fiona Apple won the award for Best New Artist in 1997, she was just a doe-eyed 20-year-old whose risqué video for ”Criminal” would be the inspiration for an American Apparel ad campaign today. Her acceptance speech, however, with the thesis statement ”this world is bulls—,” would have been more appropriate anti-establishment fodder for an Intro to Women in the Media class than an MTV program.
RUPAUL and MILTON BERLE (1993)
Towering over the withering comedian, the seven-foot-tall RuPaul proved to Milton Berle that she’s not the kind of gal to mess with when the pair were presenters at the ’93 VMAs. Bringing their reported backstage squabbles into the spotlight, Berle decided to fondle the glamazon onstage. The lofty diva shot back, ”So you used to wear gowns, but now you’re wearing diapers?” getting the last, if awkward, laugh from the audience.
Eminem proved he can’t take the sort of dissing that he regularly dishes on his albums after a confrontation with a puppet — that’s right, not a rival rapper or critic — which ended in blows that were edited out of the awards-show reruns. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (a hand puppet manned by comedian Robert Smigel) antagonized the rapper, digging up the beef between Eminem and Moby. When accepting a Moonman for Best Male Video, a riled-up Mr. Mathers made another crack at Moby and promised ”I will hit a man with glasses” to the booing audience.
MICHAEL JACKSON (2002)
Clad in her best S&M attire, Britney Spears presented the King of Pop with a birthday cake and recognition on his special day. Michael took the mic and began thanking everyone for the ”Artist of the Millennium” award, completely mistaking the kind gesture (read: easy publicity stunt for MTV) as something much more than what it was. And the shout-out to David Blaine, ”Your magic is real and I believe in you,” only added to the wacko factor.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE’S TIM COMMERFORD (2000)
While Fred Durst and the boys of Limp Bizkit were giving their acceptance speech for Best Rock Video, they were interrupted by a fellow rocker dangling behind them. Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford was scaling the set, threatening to jump. Durst only encouraged the musician’s leap, starting a ”Jump! Jump!” chant in the audience. A commercial break brought down the stray bassist and ruined all the fun of seeing security nab him live.
NIRVANA’S KRIST NOVOSELIC (1992)
These alternative rockers never seemed to have a smooth time at the VMAs. Maybe it was an inherent fear of being ”too mainstream” or ”selling out” by performing at the MTV show. (Probably anything MTV-related would fall into those categories.) Nirvana started off the string of bad-boy problems by strumming the first chords of ”Rape Me” (just to displease MTV execs) before settling into the less-brutal ”Lithium.” Then toward the end of the song, bassist Krist Novoselic got frustrated with his malfunctioning amp and threw his bass into the air. Great effect — if it hadn’t fallen right back down on his head. That’s gravity, dude.
MIAMI (2004 and 2005)
Remember those two years when MTV relocated the cosmopolitan Video Music Awards to the beaches of Miami after hosting them in New York City or Los Angeles for years? Yeah, that was weird. In 2004, the show ran without hosts, and in 2005, Diddy played emcee to a crowd that had showed up wearing white and had arrived in yachts instead of limos. Maybe we’re just partial, and maybe we don’t like change, but there’s a certain gritty, dirty quality that New York has that not only complements but enhances the quality of the iconic MTV program.
COURTNEY LOVE (1995)
This wince-worthy moment happened during an interview between Kurt Loder and Madonna after the VMAs. Madge was having a fairly serious conversation with the veteran VJ when a makeup compact whizzed by her head. The lobber was none other than sloppy mess Courtney Love, who tumbled up the stairs, grabbed a mic, and started quizzing the Material Girl. Madonna, who politely pleaded not to let Courtney into the interview, remained composed but dug into her own bag of quips, mentioning the ”availability of drugs” when talking jobs with Love.
ANDREW DICE CLAY (1989)
If you thought Sarah Silverman’s vajayjay jokes were too much, you obviously missed Andrew Dice Clay on 1989’s VMAs. During the days when the FCC wasn’t on speed dial and had some trust for entertainers, Clay proceeded to use so much profanity, laced with tasteless references, that he was kicked off of the network for life. He is still the only comedian who’s ever been banned from appearing on MTV.
HOWARD STERN’S FARTMAN (1992)
I know, I know, just when you guys thought you had fully erased the image of Howard Stern’s cottage-cheese tuchis from your memories, here we are refreshing that mental picture in all of its iridescent glory. The radio host, who shocked listeners regularly on his daily show, thought that he’d bring his brand of offensive humor to the MTV stage, but this crowd was all about the music and not the sickening sight gags.